On the 8th April, a Chinese ‘fishing vessel’ illegally entered Filipino seas and crashed straight into a protected coral reef. Upon re-inspection of the boat, the coastguard discovered its sickening cargo: 400 boxes containing over 10 tonnes of pangolin meat. The scales and meat of this insect-eating mammal are in high demand in China; its meat is regarded a delicacy and its scales are believed to have properties that are beneficial to breast-feeding mothers.
Illegal trade in pangolins has all but wiped out populations across China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and hunters are now infesting its very last remaining habitats in Java, Sumatra and the Malaysian peninsula. As pangolin species become rarer, the demand for their meat and scales increases, as does their price, despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for the touted medicinal properties of their scales.
“It is bad enough that the Chinese have illegally entered our seas, navigated without boat papers and crashed recklessly into a national marine park and World Heritage Site,” said head of WWF-Philippines, Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “It is simply deplorable that they appear to be posing as fishermen to trade in illegal wildlife.”
The crew of the boat have been arrested for poaching and attempted bribery, potentially facing 12 years in prison and $300,000 (£196,000) in fines. Posing as fishermen, the men claimed to have accidentally sailed into Philippine waters on their way from Malaysia. It is possible that they will face further charges for possession of pangolin meat, for which they can be fined and imprisoned for up to six years, and for damaging a coral reef.
The species of pangolin contained within the shipment are not yet known, but of the species listed on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, the majority are classified as Near Threatened or Endangered.
Chris Shepherd of the wildlife trade group TRAFFIC said, “There is no way a slow-breeding species like the pangolin can withstand this huge pressure for long.”
Crackdown not enough
Law enforcement has so far been unable to significantly reduce the trade in pangolin meat and scales, which is forcefully driven by the extremely high prices they fetch in China, with hunters being paid hundreds of dollars per kilogram.
“We have seen a really obscene amount of seizures but very few people are arrested and even fewer convicted”, Shepherd continued. “There is not enough investigation into who is behind the networks.”
The seizure is among the biggest on record, with other large finds including the 23 tonnes of frozen pangolins confiscated within a week in Vietnam in 2008, and the 7.8 tonnes of meat and 1.8 tonnes of scales impounded in China in 2010. In 2007, an abandoned ship was discovered off the coast of China containing 5,000 rare animals. The illegal trade in wildlife from Southeast Asia is leaving in its wake what the IUCN has described as “ghost forests”.
It appears that more investigation is needed into who is behind the trade networks in order to really crack down on the illegal trade in wildlife, particularly in Asia.
Read more on this story at The Guardian – Chinese vessel on Philippine coral reef caught with illegal pangolin meat and Mongabay – Double bad: Chinese vessel that collided with protected coral reef holding 22,000 pounds of pangolin meat.
Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author